Going into this edition, we both had our own preconceived notions about why and how competitions should be held. Of course, this had potential to be polarising. Ask any architect for their position on competitions and you will get a myriad of opinions – what makes them so so amazing, why they are a waste of time, who should have taken out top prize, and so forth.
It was an interesting exercise for us to team up on this editorial, with one of us being positively pro competitions, and the other very much not. We took on the task with a view to examine competitions through a variety of lenses – both positive and negative – in order to interrogate their place in current architecture practice, and review the cultural capital they can bring. For this, we started asking the following questions:
Who enters competitions?
What are the incentives?
What is its value?
How do you measure a good idea, and ultimately a winner?
One thing quickly became apparent. From the people we approached to contribute to this edition, there was no clean cut division between the pro and anti, no definitive foot in either camp. Those who were fervent fans acknowledged the pitfalls of the format, and those staunchly against understood the value of conceptual exploration.
Architects compete. Even beyond architecture, competitions are all the rage. On television, you can sing, cook, marry or scheme. No matter your genre, there is a competitive process promising to elevate the successful entrant to the next stages of their heart’s desire. For architects, competitions are a part of our culture, history, and most probably our future. And to be fair, like moths to a flame, who doesn’t get allured by the opportunity to freely express their views on architecture and the city? The competition entry is often personal. It’s a time of digging deep, getting into a problem and laying bare a response. Perhaps this is what is so enticing.
The greatest consequence of a competition, and we have heard it all before, is that it generates conversations and pushes design boundaries. History is peppered with examples of great architecture borne out of a paper contest. However, it is naive to justify their current incarnation based on references to precedents from bygone social and economical contexts. It is now 2016 and times are not the same. Are we being held back by unrealistic fantasies of being the next Jorn Utzon? Does the benefit of the ultimate ‘idea’ outweigh the financial cost and long hours? (Should that even matter?) What are the issues really, and how can we positively address them in our current-day situation?
One common thread from our respondents was the agreement that competitions had an undeniable value, however it was the present day social and political climate surrounding the competition process which was the issue.
To add another layer of contention, there is the inevitable Judgement Day where contestants are ranked and pitted against each other.
In addition to essays on the subject, we’ve asked some near winners to reflect on the reasons for engaging in competitions and we’ve asked our community to share their entries that didn’t win on Instagram with the hashtag #icantbelieveitsnotbuilt.
The result was an array of diverse projects generated by passionate people who cared enough to throw their ideas out there in the world. There was something bittersweet about seeing so many wonderfully considered entries that failed to take home its accolades. So many beautiful images. So many fresh perspectives. So many unpaid hours. Yet many of the projects that don’t win formed important reference points for architects. They’re a moment where long standing ideas are crystallised.
No one can deny the value of design innovation which the format can provoke, but it appears what we really need is an innovation in the competition process itself. We will flip through entries which may not have won, but have gone on to inform later built work. We will review current competition models which have been tested in cities other than our own. We will see examples of local work, and hear conversations from the young guns and seasoned professionals alike.
Through this issue, we hope to shed some light on the good and the bad, and interrogate competitions from multiple viewpoints in order to better understand their role in today’s context.